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Toyota hopes for best with replaced engines

Five of the brand's drivers must start at the rear of the field for Sunday's race in Las Vegas.

March 01, 2009|Jim Peltz

LAS VEGAS — Moments before the green flag waves at today's NASCAR race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, five Toyota drivers -- including pole-sitter Kyle Busch -- will drop back to the rear of the field.

And dozens of Toyota employees in Costa Mesa will cross their fingers.

Toyota discovered this weekend that the engines in four of its cars in the Shelby 427 Sprint Cup race -- all built in Costa Mesa at the automaker's Toyota Racing Development unit -- were faulty and had to be replaced.

The fifth engine, in Busch's No. 18 Toyota, also needed to be replaced but for unrelated reasons.

His engines are built by his Joe Gibbs Racing team.

NASCAR rules require that cars with engine changes start at the rear, regardless of where the driver qualified.

The wider problem with Toyota Racing Development's engines affected four drivers on three teams: David Reutimann (No. 00) of Michael Waltrip Racing; Brian Vickers (No. 83) and Scott Speed (No. 82) of Red Bull Racing; and Marcus Ambrose (No. 47) of JTG/Daugherty Racing.

"It's embarrassing," Lee White, the unit's president and general manager, told reporters Saturday. "This is certainly something we take full responsibility for, and NASCAR has been understanding and just said 'Get her fixed.' "

The problem was abnormal wear involving the engines' camshafts and lifters, White said. The cause remained unclear -- improper coating or lubrication of the parts were among the suspects -- but if left alone, the engine's performance would worsen, he said.

"Now we're taking some very fundamental steps" to correct the problem, including "a little heavier lubrication, trying to keep some more oil in the engine, not try and squeeze every last horsepower out of it for the race," White said.

After a rocky first year in NASCAR's premier Cup series in 2007, Toyota became a major force last year when it added Gibbs' team to its stable and won 10 of the series' 36 races.

Busch won eight races and teammates Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin won one apiece. (Stewart has since started his own team and now drives a Chevrolet.)

Toyota first noticed the engine problem a week ago at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana but believed it had corrected the issue.

"We got here fairly confident that we had it handled and, in fact, apparently only made it worse," White said.

Toyota said it found no further problems after the final Cup practice Saturday but, if the problem resurfaced, it had spare engines ready.

"The people at TRD have worked their tails off," White said of the unit. "They worked all night last night, we had three guys jump in a truck, bring five engines over [from California], they got here at 4 o'clock this morning and they're on the ground ready to go if we need them."

Busch, meanwhile, said he was unconcerned about being forced to start at the rear in today's 285-lap race on the 1.5-mile Las Vegas speedway.

"We've just got to take what's been given to us and try to battle it out," said the 23-year-old Las Vegas native. "The big check comes after the leader of the last lap, not the first lap."

His older brother Kurt, 30, qualified second and thus will effectively lead the field at the start after Kyle drops back. Three-time Las Vegas winner and reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who qualified third, will start alongside Kurt on the front row.

Matt Kenseth, winner at Daytona and Fontana this year, also starts near the back, in 40th, as he tries to become the first Cup driver in history to win the opening three races of the season.

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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